In the Arena’s Nordic Skiers: Dream Big and Do Good

FasterSkierJuly 1, 2008

How many skiers do you know dedicated to youth development through mentoring? And how many of these individuals do you know who receive sponsorship dollars to pursue their athletic dreams in return for service to their communities? In the Arena (ITA), a new nonprofit, is making waves by integrating elite athletes and youth mentoring. ITA works to harness the power of athletes to effect positive change in today’s youth. In turn, ITA provides the athletes with hard-to-come-by flexibility in the pursuit of their athletic aspirations.

I am proud to be part of the ever-growing network of family and friends that defines the Nordic ski world. From young athlete’s roots in the Bill Koch League to representing one’s region at the Junior National Championships, nordies become part of a community that challenges and supports one another. In the last five years, US Nordic skiers have dramatically increased their impact on the international stage largely due to the commitment they are making to full-time training following their collegiate experience. Not that I need to remind anyone, but this is no small dedication of time or money.

In the Arena, a nonprofit founded in Cambridge, MA in 2006, is helping to provide a nationwide solution for civic-minded Nordic skiers in pursuit of an Olympic bid. Comporting to the ideals of Teddy Roosevelt- “every citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed”-In the Arena aims to improve the state of our society as a collective whole by elevating the experiences of its youngest citizens through connections with elite athletes in the communities where they live, train, and become de facto leaders. Through self-designed mentoring projects, ITA athletes serve as natural, high-caliber role models. They work to instill in youth the value of character development and integrity, a thirst for excellence, and an appreciation of civic engagement.

Currently, ITA supports a growing roster of 12 athletes who live in 10 cities and have impacted the lives of over 5,000 youths. Nordic skiers constitute one-third of our roster featuring the familiar faces of Nicole De Yong, Zack Simons, Laura Valaas, and Kate Whitcomb. I think the high proportion of nordic skiers on ITA’s roster speaks highly of the close-knit and supportive Nordic ski community.

Why did Kate, Zack, Nicole, and Laura choose to work with In the Arena? If asked as a group, I think there would be a unanimous response: ITA’s support allows athletes to continue the independent pursuit of their Olympic aspirations, to give back to their communities, and to focus on training and recovery instead of working long hours to make ends meet. Kate remarks: “ITA enables me to make the most out of my training and recovery hours. The added bonus is that I am provided with a socially responsible answer to the question: ‘So, what do you do?’ which is inevitably followed up with ‘Is that all?’. My work with children in Ketchum, ID’s Hemingway Elementary School provides a balance for my otherwise selfish profession.”

Likewise, ITA enables Zack to remain in Park City and train near his established support base. “ITA presented the opportunity to give back to a community that had done so much for me in the past- It is great that through sport, ITA allows me the chance to do something that is not about me, but all about positively impacting the kids I work with at my alma mater, Ecker Hill International Middle School.”

In addition to the vital support Nicole receives that enables her to pursue her athletic goals, her ITA experience working at the Wood River YMCA has allowed her to find a balance in her training and to live in a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ scenario. “I can focus and commit 100% to ski racing and have the opportunity to give back to my community and to know that I am making a difference in the lives of the kids with whom I work. In the flexible and relaxed atmosphere at the YMCA, I aim to help kids seek and realize their skills and potential.”

Laura Valaas, In the Arena’s most recent nordie addition, offers this final testament to the impact that ITA has on youth: “…working with my 5th & 6th graders and seeing the impact that I could have on their lives made me realize that because of my achievements in skiing, I can accomplish so much more working with youth than I could if I hadn't followed my passion. Knowing first-hand the positive impact that I can have on youth due to my athletic success motivates me even more to be the best skier I can be. Being a part of ITA has been incredibly affirming to me- I previously thought ski racing was something selfish I did because I enjoyed it, but getting to know each individual student and develop relationships with them is incredibly enriching. Working with my students this year has made me more patient with myself and others.”

There is a common thread woven through these experiences catalyzed by In the Arena’s support: it is possible to train full time and remain civically engaged. ITA encourages athletes to realize the power and magnetism of their elite status to catch and hold kids’ attention and to harness this elevated status through community mentoring.

In the Arena aspires to facilitate an increase in the network of elite athletes and the youth in communities across America. The words of Teddy Roosevelt in his speech, Citizen of the Republic, act as a reminder to ITA that there are endless ways to connect with and impact our youth. At ITA we honor and support those who are ‘actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause’- a cause that for ITA’s athletes is two-fold: athletic pursuit and civic engagement.

What is on the horizon for In the Arena? ITA aims to impact the lives of 10,000 youth before the Beijing Olympics kick off in August. What about for those of us focused on Vancouver? This blossoming nonprofit organization aims to grow to a capacity able to impact 30,000 youth. A huge goal for a talented few!

If In the Arena sparks your interest as an athlete or donor, please visit our website at or call 1-888-95ARENA. On our website, you will find inspiring athlete websites and blogs and information on how to apply to our roster and donate to ITA’s mission.


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